The governor of Ohio has signed a major criminal justice reform bill that will let cities facilitate mass expungements for people with certain drug-related convictions, including marijuana possession of up to 200 grams, while also protecting people from getting criminal records for possessing cannabis paraphernalia.
Gov. Mike DeWine (R) signed the legislation from Sen. Nathan Manning (R) on Tuesday. The bill covers a wide range of issues, including sentencing reform for people in prison and broader criminal records sealing and expungements.
Key provisions of the bill came about after Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb (D) attempted to facilitate several thousand expungements for residents with marijuana possession convictions. He was told by state officials that localities don’t have that clemency authority, so the mayor worked with Manning to resolve the issue.
My administration committed early on to help remove the barrier of low-level marijuana convictions for people seeking opportunities at work or school.
SB 288 gets us there, and it shows how cities and the General Assembly can work together to address all Ohioans' challenges. pic.twitter.com/EruJQYhtsS
— Mayor Justin M. Bibb (@MayorBibb) January 3, 2023
County prosecutors and city law directors will now be able to apply for expungements for fourth degree or minor misdemeanor drug offenses on citizens’ behalf. That could have sweeping implications, empowering local governments across the state to provide relief to people with convictions for possessing up to 200 grams of marijuana, for example.
Also under the legislation, misdemeanor cannabis paraphernalia possession cases would “not constitute a criminal record,” nor would they need to be disclosed “in response to any inquiries about the person’s criminal record.”
“At the end of the day, this is [like] a traffic ticket that is being sealed or expunged,” Manning told Cleveland.com. “There are no victims. But because this is a drug offense, it has been this major barrier on employment and other things.”
DeWine didn’t explicitly mention the main criminal justice reform components of the legislation in a press release about signing it into law. Instead, he focused on a provision about expanding the ability of police to pull over people for distracted driving.
However, he said that the measure generally “helps ensure that Ohio law reflects modern realities.”
The law will take effect 90 days from the signing, and the Cleveland mayor said he would move expeditiously to take advantage of the new clemency authority once that happens. Cincinnati officials similarly looked into mass expungements for cannabis offenses last year as well.
We’ve been fighting to expunge the records of thousands of Clevelanders convicted of minor marijujana possession cases since April. Today, @GovMikeDeWine signed a bill to change the state’s expungement laws after our continued advocacy — we keep pushing. https://t.co/oMuifQzjkW
— Justin M. Bibb (@JustinMBibb) January 3, 2023
Advocates welcome the development, but they’re also holding out hope for broader reform, especially after facing setbacks as activist-led ballot campaign and legislative attempts to legalize marijuana stalled out last year.
The campaign Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CTRMLA) sought to put legalization on the ballot last year, but it faced complications that ultimately pushed the reform proposal back to this year at earliest.
In the legislature, a pair of Ohio Democratic lawmakers separately filed a bill to legalize marijuana in April that directly mirrors the proposed initiative that activists had pursued, but it did not advance in time.
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A GOP legislator who sponsored a different bill to tax and regulate cannabis has tempered expectations about the chances for legislative reform, signaling that the issue will likely have to be decided by voters.
The House Finance Committee held a hearing on the Democratic and Republican legalization bills last month, but no votes were held.
Ohioans have made clear that they’re ready for a policy change during elections in multiple recent cycles, including this latest one in November where voters in five more cities approved local marijuana decriminalization ballot initiatives.
A recent poll found that a majority of Ohio voters would support marijuana legalization at the ballot statewide.
As of September, Ohio medical marijuana sales officially surpassed the $1 billion mark since dispensaries started serving patients in April 2019, state data shows.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.